As an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Rosanna Xia has covered crises unfolding before our eyes, from oil spills to rising sea levels. But in a story published in 2020, Xia explored a disaster that had been simmering under the surface of the sea for decades.
From 1947 to 1982, California-based Montrose Chemical manufactured the pesticide DDT at a plant in Los Angeles. During that time, scientists learned about DDT’s dangers, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded the alarm about the chemical’s environmental consequences. Then, in the 1990s, an epic Superfund battle ensued, exposing the factory’s dumping of DDT into the environment through the sewer system. It was a landmark case that captured the attention of the media, scientists, and policymakers. An eventual settlement with Montrose and other companies involved with the plant provided funds to pay for cleanup, habitat restoration, and outreach about the risk of eating DDT-poisoned fish.
But the case left a major question unanswered. Rumors had circulated about another source of DDT from the Montrose plant: barrels of sludge laced with the chemical dumped straight into the ocean. Scientists had estimated that—if the waste was out there—hundreds of tons of additional DDT might have been released into Southern California’s waters. Due to lack of funding, as well as limitations of available techniques, researchers’ attempts to find answers eventually died out.
The picture remained murky until the early 2010s, when David Valentine, a geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, came across the toxic cache: barrels lurking on the seafloor near California’s picture-perfect Catalina Island. That finding spurred a fresh investigation and analysis of sediment samples. In 2019, Valentine, his then-PhD-student Veronika Kivenson, and their colleagues reported that they had found about 60 barrels of pesticide-polluted waste.
In a longform story published in the L.A. Times on October 25, 2020, Xia brings readers to the scene of the submerged barrels seeping DDT. Her story draws on historical records and research, which suggest that up to half a million barrels might have been dumped at the site, and spotlights the emotional reactions of scientists who investigated the possible DDT pollution in the 1980s and 1990s. Xia lays out the interplay between scientific research, government inaction, and lack of public awareness in the face of environmental recklessness. The narrative also compels readers to sit with the uncertainty surrounding legacy contamination and the quandary of how to address it. Xia’s story was featured in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021.
Here, Xia tells Carolyn Wilke how her story came together. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
The story centers on contamination that happened decades ago. How did you end up writing about it in 2020?
The story started with a phone call [in early 2019] from David Valentine, who had come across these barrels underwater on a dive. I drove to Santa Barbara and we met. After that meetup, I remember going back to my apartment and searching for my copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It was published in 1962, and it was astounding how much of it still resonated. It had been years since I thought about DDT because it is a textbook chemical; it’s considered a chapter of history at this point.
Before I pitched my editor, I was digging deeper and deeper into the past. There was so much to unravel and so many dots to connect. This epic Superfund battle in the ’90s focused on the factory dumping its waste through the sewer system. It became very clear, in rereading how newspapers covered the issue in L.A., that there was a whole chapter missing to the story. People were so focused on the sewage outlet versus barging it out and dumping it straight into the ocean.
What were the biggest reporting challenges?
I did not know what documents were out there. It became clear that the dumping of thousands of barrels of DDT waste into the ocean—that part of the story was known only by a handful of people, and even fewer people seemed to know the full scope of the problem. There wasn’t someone who could give me the overview or a set realm of research that I could dive into.
Once the Kivenson and Valentine paper was published, I looked at every single study that was referenced in their study and asked [them], “Which studies did you find helpful in your lit review? Who were the researchers that came before you?” The other thing was, there were textbooks from the ’70s and ’80s that compiled what was discussed at conferences on ocean dumping. That was also helpful in terms of giving me leads on who might have known something specific to Southern California at the time—who was looking into the questions and getting cited.
Much of the scientific research occurred during this era when paper records were getting archived to microfiche and early digital repositories. [But] so many reports had fallen through the cracks; Kivenson mentioned research that she was never able to track down. At some point, I’m like, what I need probably got tossed in the trash or, if there is still a physical copy, it’s gathering dust somewhere in a box in someone’s basement. What I found particularly helpful was calling up the authors of older studies and asking if they still had a paper copy somewhere.
One of the scientists you contacted was Allan Chartrand, who investigated this issue in the 1980s. There’s a great scene in the story where he pulls out his old reports. How did that happen, and what was that moment like?
I called him and was like, “Hey, do you have any of these papers?” I gave him a couple references to reports or presentations that I wasn’t able to find a digital copy of. And he was like, “Yeah, I’m a pack rat,” so he had a huge pile in storage. And then I was like, “Okay, can we meet sometime?”
When I met with Chartrand, he brought boxes that were in his basement, and we did spend a couple days with all these papers. We read them together, and I photocopied as many as I could. It was such a powerful moment to sit with him, watching him reread documents that he had not gone over himself in years and reflect on this period of research. Some of the conclusions he read out loud were details on what he found at that time—the holes and data gaps, connections that they were and weren’t quite able to make in terms of how DDT and its breakdown products moved up the food chain, and next steps on how to continue this line of inquiry. Today, we are still asking a number of those questions.
The piece shows scientists’ dismay, surprise, and excitement as they discuss the DDT contamination and react to the new study about the underwater barrels. How did your interviews elicit the researchers’ emotions?
I went into a lot of these interviews trying to understand the science and the history. Almost all the scientists I talked to had an emotional response. Each of the reactions was so organic, and it was just a matter of knowing to take note of those emotional moments and knowing that this had a role in the story as well.
[Some of the scientists] had explored similar lines of questioning—Chartrand in the ’80s, [M. Indira] Venkatesan in the ’90s. Both of them had felt like they had uncovered the tip of this issue and information that was important, but no one had acted on it. Both of them were limited by the technology at the time, and Valentine and Kivenson’s research was a natural extension of what they were doing. That was one of the narrative threads that ended up revealing itself throughout the reporting—that there was a generational handing of the baton forward within the science community.
The first quote in the piece is Valentine saying, “Holy crap. This is real,” as he first views the punctured barrels of waste. Why did you use this quote as part of the story’s opening?
I asked David Valentine to walk me through that day. When he got to the part of the story where the robot with the camera came across the barrels—I don’t want to be dramatic, but there was kind of a chill in the room as he was recounting this. Later, when I was trying to figure out how to open the story, I remember thinking that is the reaction most people will have, and it would really resonate to have the scientist convey and share in that emotion when the reader is feeling it.
I did call David back before publication and read that opening section to him so there were no surprises. I’m so grateful that he understood that it was more important for him to sound like a human in that moment rather than a scientist talking in more technical terms.
Did the story’s structure change during revisions?
It didn’t change. Structure-wise, my editor jokingly calls it “the parking lot” version of the story. The way I pitched this story was, we were both working super late in the newsroom one day, and we ran into each other in the elevator, had to go down seven floors, and walk across the parking lot to our cars. How I opened the story in the elevator was how I ended up opening the story [when I wrote it]. We had the “holy crap” opening, and then [my editor asked,] “Wait, what is DDT again?” That’s the next section in the story, because that is the natural question a lot of readers will ask. So we go into the history and explainer on DDT, and then [we address the question], Okay, so how did it get into the ocean? That naturally helped create structure.
How did the public respond to the story?
There has been a really powerful political response. There was a congressional hearing earlier this summer. It mobilized the ocean-science community. It came up during a number of academic conferences.
Scripps [Institution of Oceanography] and NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] even made a research expedition happen that usually takes at least two or three years to book; they put it together in five months, because everyone really wanted to continue answering this question of scope. The lead researcher’s plan was to go to the coordinates that David Valentine had gotten, recalibrate and confirm, and zoom robots like torpedoes across the sea floor as much as they can go. He ended up spending all two weeks scanning because there was no boundary. There were so many dots on the sonar; the dump site was much bigger than expected. He said it was like trying to count stars in the Milky Way.
I think they’re trying to get more funding to go back and finish the mapping. The consensus within the academic and policy space is that they would really like to get a sense of the scope before they figure out where to go from there.
Why do you think it’s important to tell the story of contamination that happened so long ago?
Ultimately, one of the takeaways is, once you put a forever chemical out into the environment, it’s really hard to take that back. There was this quote in Silent Spring that became my grounding beacon as I was writing the story: “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power.” And then she wrote [quoting biologist Jean Rostand], “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”
So today, we are enduring the legacy of this contamination from decades ago. We have the right to know that it exists, and that is what we’re living with. Through the reporting and writing process, that was my anchor. It was clear that so much of what happened in the past is very much part of our future; it just takes someone to present it that way.
Carolyn Wilke is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a Chicago-based freelance science journalist. Find her on Twitter @carolynmwilke.